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Technical Presentations with an International Audience

When I have found myself engaged with engineers from other countries, I’ve treasured the experience.  The interactions are intellectually stimulating.  I am fascinated by differences in work processes that arise through cultural differences, regulatory differences, or other reasons.   

My first exposure to an international meeting was while I was consulting in Germany. I attended a technical workshop in which engineers from Germany, Japan, and the United States were sharing knowledge.  Each presentation was in English, a real benefit for me as an American.  I could easily comprehend the presentations given by German and Japanese engineers.  When the first U.S. engineer gave his presentation, I watched confused looks, scrunched eyebrows, hands-on head, and other signs of consternation among the attendees.   My first thought was the subject was difficult to comprehend by non-native English speakers.  I soon realized that was not the issue, the American was using the United States Customary Units, the engineers could not relate to the numbers.  

I had a printout of all presentations on the agenda from the American Group.  I started converting all the units to metric. During a break, I made photocopies of the slides with my hand-written conversions and passed those copies out.  Suffice it to say, I made a lot of friends in the room that day.  The action caused me to be invited to the technical exchange group as a lead member and I continued in this role for many more years.  

During breaks in the meetings, I observed the Japanese, German, and Indonesian engineers would huddle together and converse in their native language.  For these attendees, digesting the high volume of information in a second language was mentally draining.  Breaks were utilized to check their understanding of recent presentations with each other.  It was common for a regional group to send a delegate to ask clarifying questions and check their understanding with the presenter.  The delegate always reported the answer back to the others in their first language.  A short break after each presentation was adopted as the meeting norm to allow this to happen.  

By the end of each day of meetings, the second language attendees were more noticeably drained than the native English speakers.  Initially, the agenda included heading straight to dinner as the presentations concluded for the day.  After observing several dinners with zoned-out diners trying to shut off their ears to give their mind a rest, a 90-minute break after the meeting and before dinner was implemented.  The recovery period made a big difference in the liveliness of the dinner conversation.  It was at the dinner table that cultural exchanges occurred, and friendships built.

These were my main takeaways to make technical international meetings more productive:

  1. English language and metric units are the combinations most likely to be understood.
  2. Utilize frequent breaks to permit conversation in native language thereby increasing comprehension.  
  3. Shorten the duration and allow recovery time for attendees who are having to intensely concentrate to understand information presented in a second language.

Whoever I have met and wherever I have traveled, humans are humans.  We love and provide for our families, we seek knowledge and intellectual stimulation, we are driven to succeed, and we all like to eat food that tastes good.  Spend time over meals building relationships – you will benefit more and benefit longer if you do. 

This photo is of Iwamoto-san, Mr. Neff, Yoshizawa-san, and Herr Oberländer on a beach in Indonesia.  Many years ago…


John Neff, Project Manager

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